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why literature?

27 december 2013

"Why literature" is a question that's probably been asked ever since Cicero signed up for Greek 102. Why do I have to take literature, from the students; why do I have to teach literature, from the professor assigned it a week before the semester began; why do our majors have to waste three credits on literature, from advisors in business and engineering; why do we have to pour money down the sinkhole of the English Department, from the central administration. From the larger perspective, why read poems and fiction and plays at all? We don't mandate that students watch movies or TV, read comics, or play video games. They seem to gravitate to those experiences without the stick of Required Reading. And a few gravitate to non-literary, or even literary, fictions: why not just see that activity as a peculiar minority taste, instead of putting it at the center of curricula, and bestowing cultural capital on people who read (or can at least talk about having read) a lot of books?

Cristina Vischer Bruns pares these questions down to a couple of significant exemplars in Why Literature? Why is reading literature a good thing for people and society in general – and how can college teachers of literature make that good thing happen?

In a very clear and concise review of current thinking among academics, Bruns compiles a list of approaches to the first question (why is literature good at all?) that is surprisingly various. Even among people who teach literature for a living, you can't get two consistent answers about why we should be doing it. People may get some sort of cognitive benefit from reading. They may learn truths about the world; they may learn from the repository of human experience contained in the literature section of libraries. People read for insight, delight, shock, horror, catharsis. They read to learn salutary values; they read, in the eyes of many contemporary literary scholars, to unmask, critique, and resist pernicious values.

Bruns isn't particularly convinced by any of the rationales for reading literature currently on the market. Each seems limiting to her; each seems lacking in demonstrable (and universal) benefits. She argues strongly that literature is valuable because it is a "transitional object," in terms elaborated by psychologist D.W. Winnicot and his followers. One usually thinks of transitional objects as things like teddy bears or security blankets: mediators between self and a scary world, until a child can mature, individuate, and become integrated as a stable identity with a stable sense of reality. But there's a sense in which we and our reality are always in flux, and always in need of new transitional objects. You can't carry stuffed animals around unless you're Mel Gibson in a preposterous movie. But you can always carry Proust.

Hence Bruns's thesis:

Literary texts, then, function as ideal transitional objects because they are transactional in nature — between text and reader — and because the language which is their medium, through its emphasis on form that conveys voice, its evocation of sensory experience, and its openness to unconscious communication, is especially capable of recalling and reactivating in readers early experiences of self-formation. (33)
Good reading activates the transitional potential of texts; good teaching helps students do so for themselves. Bruns evaluates her entire field in that light.

Starting from that premise, Bruns critiques current work in literature pedagogy in terms of how well pedagogues make books available to their students as transitional objects. She follows these critiques by offering her own recommendations for successful literature classrooms.

Hers seem like very good classrooms. Bruns stresses involving students as "co-inquirers," respecting where they start from and what they bring to a course, trusting their initial readings of texts as valid despite their status of novices, and valuing the fact that different readers will have different reactions to the same literary work. None of this is touchy-feely nonsense, despite what you're thinking. In fact, Bruns's pedagogical principles strike me as realism from the trenches. Students do start from somewhere, and it's a teacher's job to see that they get somewhere else if they put time and effort (and tuition money) into a course. It does no good at all to wish that they knew more or were more fluent in the discourse of literary scholarship. That's a quick way to burnout: "My students don't know anything!" Sure; that's why they're in school. And diversity is not a buzzword. Readers disagree over texts. That's commonly seen as a virtue in anthologies of literary criticism; why not in the sophomore classroom?

Bruns doesn't use a whole lot of anecdotes, though she has a few concrete examples of her teaching, strongly chosen and reiterated to make clear points. Her guiding theme is of the I'm-OK-You're-OK variety. Unless a teacher believes that students are basically reasonable and sincere individuals, she can't lead them into the kind of immersion in texts that Bruns values.

Burns is also respectful of the pedagogues, critics and theorists she treats, even when she disagrees with them. The disagreement typically arises when scholars see things in black-and-white terms. For instance, Bruns values immersion – giving yourself over to the "world-building" of a literary work – a process often derided in the scholarship as naïve. But she also values reflection, the critical and self-critical side of the reading process. In fact, following Paul Ricoeur, she argues that immersion and reflection are integrated parts of a whole reading dynamic. Without immersion, you never enter a text; without reflection, you never resurface. Championing one over the other is an imbalanced approach.

Only at a few subsidiary points did I find myself thinking that Bruns glossed over an important issue. (And that's remarkable for such a brief book, about 150 pages; this is taut and well-focused academic writing.) At times, for instance, I found myself wondering "why literature?" as opposed to TV, comics, and games – or painting and opera, if your brow is higher. I've been using comic books enough recently as transitional objects in my own life to report that they can work as powerfully as novels or plays. Here and there, Bruns or a scholar she cites will mention the verbal nature of literary texts as a distinctive feature, but she won't stress the point. Perhaps attention to verbal art is too much of a slippery slope towards the "self-consuming artifact" of high deconstruction, the text that inevitably ends up being about the inadequacies of its own textuality.

Bruns maintains instead (following theorist Gabriele Schwab) that literature tends "to evoke for readers experiences which activate the full range of the senses" (32). But the very paucity of texts puts the stress in that sentence on the word "evoke": if literature appeals to a range of senses, it does so purely in the reader's imagination. Meanwhile, opera can touch sight and hearing directly, the latter through both music and language. You can taste and smell the popcorn while you watch a 3-D movie … you see where I'm going. Literature suggests sensory experience, but reading is in itself practically a sense-free undertaking.

And throughout Why Literature?, there's a sense that literary fiction works well as a transitional object and popular fiction might not work so well. Discussing a pedagogue's use of Stephen King's novel Misery, Bruns says offhandedly "some might question the literariness of anything by Stephen King" (98). She's no philistine – she's actually quite open to the idea that there are non-literary items that might serve as transitional objects. But she does seem to divide the world into high and low literature, and I get the sense that the higher texts (though more difficult of immersion) work better for her purposes.

I have a sense of high and low too, so I'm not really sounding alarm bells. But I also think that high and low reading, and the uses people make of both, are closer akin that literary professionals usually allow. But that's, as I said, a subsidiary matter, and one for different books and different discussions.

Bruns, Cristina Vischer. Why Literature?: The value of literary reading and what it means for teaching. New York: Continuum, 2011.